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Last Updated: Monday, 27 February 2006, 11:48 GMT
Russia's capital finds a new face
Moscow's cityscape has changed radically since the fall of communism, but at a cost, as the BBC News website's Patrick Jackson discovered.

Showers of welder's sparks gust through the night sky above Moscow's frozen city centre. Glass and steel palaces of business and leisure gleam like mirages in the gloom.

Construction work on the roof of the Tsaritsyno Palace (photo: Evgeniy Podolskiy)

Out in the park at Tsaritsyno, where a real palace has stood famously unfinished for centuries since Catherine the Great snubbed its design, modern metal roof frames top the elegant walls.

This is a city awash with money rebuilding itself after decades of communist rule, and the boom shows no sign of abating, in season or out.

Encouraged by Yury Luzhkov, city mayor since 1992, it is a boom which some fear is sweeping away the city's rich architectural heritage to make way for the new.

Campaigners for its preservation were in London last week to raise funds through a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society.

The Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (Maps) made a special case for Moscow's decaying constructivist buildings - revolutionary models for the world in their day. But they say pre-Napoleonic and Art Nouveau treasures are equally vulnerable when property prices are soaring.

About 2,000 buildings have been knocked down in the historic centre since Mr Luzhkov took office, according to a Maps estimate, while repairs to others often show scant respect for period detail.

Leading campaigner Clementine Cecil, a UK journalist based in Moscow, argues that a profit-driven transformation is hurting the city now as much as the Great Fire of 1812 and Stalin's reconstruction plan of 1935.

Olympic proportions

The 1980 Moscow Olympics has a lot to answer for, says Mikhail Moskvin-Tarkhanov, head of Moscow City Council's Building and Development Commission.

Mikhail Moskvin-Tarkhanov
When the money and the modern technology appeared, everybody wanted to build something out of the ordinary
Mikhail Moskvin-Tarkhanov
Moscow City Council

When work began 30 years ago to prepare for the Games, all repair work to the existing city and its infrastructure ceased and was not taken up again in earnest until the Luzhkov years.

"This is a city which for decades lived by its facades, beautiful facades, but everything behind them was rotten, ugly and scary," says Mr Moskvin-Tarkhanov.

The solution Moscow's new rulers found was to make citizens owners of their own homes, creating a property market where the average price for real estate is now being put at $3,000 (1,725) per square metre.

Dilapidated old houses are being torn down, he says, but the city is giving their residents new, and bigger, homes in the same areas in exchange.

The council, he insists, respects the city's listed buildings, restoring the oldest or replacing others with "imitations built with modern materials".

A Manhattan fit for tsars

Moscow has been working since 1992 to become, once again, the "centre of Eastern Europe and the front room of Central Asia", according to the head of the construction commission.

The most visible fruit of this drive has been "Moscow City", a giant business zone taking shape around Bagration Bridge, to the west of the centre.

It is due to expand on the territory of an old industrial area similar to the Docklands development in London.

"When the money and the modern technology appeared, everybody wanted to build something out of the ordinary," says Mr Moskvin-Tarkhanov.

"Muscovites are a strange folk: on the one hand, they want you to make things look like they did under the tsars - on the other, they want you to give them Manhattan."

Wild 1990s

Public monuments are equally uneven in the capital.

Mr Moskvin-Tarkhanov suggests that the rash of new monuments designed by Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, while having a humour and flair of their own, jar with most Muscovites.

Tsereteli's Peter The Great boat monument, he believes, could work if it was shifted out of view of the Kremlin and up to the city's Northern River Port.

"Look, this is one of the monuments of the 1990s, when we were only starting out," he adds.

"Things are taking shape now and developing in an orderly, predictable, boring, measured fashion."

Certainly, Moscow's chief architect, Alexander Kuzmin, has promised 2006 will see few surprises for the city, describing it as a year of consolidation.

Maps will have its eyes peeled.

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